On its last day of existence — or, more particularly, on a day after its last day, when it reopened just for this purpose — the St. Mark’s Bookshop sold off all of its remaining stock at $2 a copy. The poetry section, naturally, was the only place where anything worth looking at was left, the home of the overlooked. I picked up a few things, and among them the last book published by my teacher Daniel Hoffman just before his death in 2013. Considering that he was 89 at the time, the book’s title reflects a measured optimism sadly contradicted by fate. I wonder how Hoffman’s work will last. My poet friends don’t read him, probably considering him too old-fashioned to bother with. I think they’re making a mistake. From beginning to end, Hoffman was a curious, inventive, and eclectic experimenter with modes and forms both traditional and less so. He was an anti-Romantic, a poet enamored of balance, wit, and measure, yet also a sensualist, whose poetry seeks whatever ecstasy the things of this world can offer. His best writing arises from that essential conflict. This collection is as multifaceted as any of his others, but two modes dominate: gentle satire and plangent elegy. A good example of the former is “Awareness,” about a poet intent on clearing his mind of life’s “importunate distractions” in order to focus on his unwritten poem, titled “A swollen cloud that won’t let free its rain.” The body of the poem enumerates all the things the poet endeavors to ignore in order to concentrate — all the things that might well have been matter for the poem. What’s rare is the depth of Hoffman’s empathy for the foolish poet; I suspect he was satirizing, not someone else, but a tendency within himself. The book’s elegiac side reflects the fact that most of the poems were written after the death of Hoffman’s wife, Elizabeth McFarland. “Merely to think upon her is to sing,” trills a poem first published in 1960 and reprinted here. The new poems intone a more troubled note as the poet tried to understand how, “free of such superstition” as myth and religious conviction, it is possible to “know the love that transcends death.”

Daniel Hoffman’s Next to Last Words (2013) is published by Louisiana State University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...